by Joe Stiglitz
I usually limit myself in my newspaper commentaries to my area of expertise, economics. But as an American, I am so horrified by what has happened in my country - and what my country has done to others over the past two years - that I feel I must speak out.
I believe American abuses of human rights and the canons of civilized peoples that have come to light in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, and the more horrendous abuses that almost surely will come to light later, are not merely the act of aberrant individuals. They are the result of a Bush administration that has trampled on human rights and international law, including the Geneva conventions, and tried to undermine basic democratic protections, ever since it took office.
Sadly, torture and other atrocities do happen in war - and the Iraq war is certainly not the only time torture has been used - but I believe that the Bush administration is responsible for creating a climate in which international law and democratic processes have been disregarded. When Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at the last World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he was asked how the administration could justify what was taking place in Guatanamo Bay, where prisoners are being kept without being charged and without counsel. Cheney's answer was jarring: he said that because the detainees were captured in Afghanistan where they had been trying to kill US troops, the rules regarding prisoners of war did not apply.
Many in the audience were shocked by his remarks, but Cheney seemingly failed to grasp how appalled his audience was. They were not concerned with legalisms, about whether, technically, the Geneva conventions did or did not apply. They were concerned about basic canons of human rights. Among the most appalled were those who had recently struggled to achieve democracy, and were continuing to fight for human rights.
The Bush administration has also trampled on citizens' basic right to know what their government is doing, refusing, for example, to disclose who was on the task force that shaped its energy policy - though one really doesn't need that information to see that it was shaped by the oil industry and for the oil industry.
When abuses occur in one area, they can quickly spread to others. For weeks the Bush administration kept the report on abuses in Iraqi prisons from the American people by pressuring CBS not to air the photographs in its possession. Similarly, it was only through the use of the Freedom of Information Act that the dramatic photographs of the coffins of US soldiers coming home were finally made public.
The American media have not emerged unscathed. Why did CBS refuse to release information of vital concern to the public? The abuses should have been covered months ago. Amnesty International held a press conference on the topic in Baghdad in July 2003. And while the pictures and the story of Abu Ghraib ran on front pages in Europe and elsewhere, it was at first buried in many American newspapers, including leaders like The New York Times. Were they worried about offending the Bush administration?
Defenders of President Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and the military emphasize the difficulty of the task they face in Iraq, human frailty and fallibility, and the fact that there are always a few "rotten apples." America's system of government, however, recognizes all of this, and attempts to guard against it. Had the letter and spirit of these safeguards been followed, we would not have been in this war at all, or at least not alone.